Wednesday, June 25, 2008

25 June, 2008 - One Woman

Most of my responsibilities at work have been centred around the School Feeding Programme. However, WFP’s Kenya Country Program also supports people living with HIV/AIDS in the Western part of Kenya and in the slums of Nairobi.

Many of the people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya receive free anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). The medicine is given by the government and international donors to help HIV/AIDS-infected beneficiaries live longer. Research has still shown, however, that Kenyans on ARVs cannot fully sustain their livelihood as they are too weak to work. Their ability to farm or otherwise support their families depends on a high-nutrient diet and an overall food intake well above the recommended daily amount. Without proper food, ARVs are ineffective. This is where the WFP comes in. We provide take home rations for about 60,000 poor people living with HIV/AIDS. When given our food and their ARVs, a sick and bedridden AIDS-infected person will be able to recover his/her energy in three months; thereafter the person will be able to take on labour-intensive work. Because of the strong family traditions in Kenya, where everything is shared among family members, we feed the whole families of HIV/AIDS-infected people; if we didn’t, the sick person would only consume a small portion of what we give them and the rest of the food would be shared. Often the beneficiaries are too poor to be self-sufficient even after the three months; therefore, WFP, through our implementing partners, provides different kinds of training to the beneficiaries such as: food security, agriculture methods, bee-keeping, fruit tree planting, knitting, craft making, etc. which all can be combined with micro financing/lending. After 6-12 months the beneficiaries are supposed to graduate from the program and then they are on their own. Not everybody graduates though but our graduates tend to be successful.

Last week (after Lisa came home), I went on a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) mission to the city of Kisumu and the town of Busia in Western Kenyan. I didn’t travel alone, but rather joined Hamai, our Japanese JPO (same contract as mine, just supported by the Japanese Government instead of the Danish), as well as our head of M&E, Grace, a Kenyan woman about whom I will write a blog another time. Kisumu is on Lake Victoria and Busia is right next to the Ugandan border. Kisumu may sound familiar from the news or Lisa’s past blogs because the post-election violence hit that area very hard. We flew to Kisumu in a nice jet-plane and landed almost on the water. The weather was just perfect: 27 degrees Celsius, much nicer than our “winter” weather (19C) in Nairobi. The next day we drove for just a few hours to stop at the non-profit REEP, one of our implementing partners that distributes WFP food. The REEP centre is in a small community not too far from Busia and does many things other than distribute food to people living with HIV/AIDS. They do gender awareness in schools and other community settings, and they help girls or boys who have been the victims of rape. In the tribe native to Busia and surrounding towns, men who don’t beat their wives are looked down upon, so abuse and rape are both quite common. Surprisingly, Kenya has very strict laws to protect women from such crimes, but in these rural settings women are often afraid to speak out and, if they do, the matter is often settled between families with some cows or bags of maize.

The head of the REEP centre is Mary. We were supposed to spend most of the short visit evaluating our partnership but the visit was not short because Mary insisted on telling us, the white men (yes, in Kenya they consider Asian people to be “white”), every detail about her centre. Even though she was longwinded, we learned so much from her.

About 75 girls and boys are raped every year in this small community; more than one per week. Mary has made it her mission in life to create awareness about this problem, to educate children (mainly female) about their rights, to enforce the rule of law by prosecuting the male perpetrators and to help people living with HIV/AIDS. The centre has many counselors, including male counsellors, who almost looked like strong police men (and I soon learned why).

Mary told us a lot about cases of rape: not just one case, not just five cases, not just 20 cases. She talked and talked and talked and, even though I did hope she would stop at some point, she kept talking! Generally, Mary is feared by the men in the community, which has lead to many death threats made against her. Girls from rich families who have been raped will come to her and she will help them, with the leaders of their families thanking her deeply. But when poor 13-year-old (or often much younger) orphan girls come to her because a professor or priest had taken advantage of them, the leaders will try to quiet everything down and settle the problem with a few cows. But Mary would go straight to the media and force the law to prosecute the men, which has sometimes resulted in jail sentences up to 40 years. The media would ask her: “Are you happy now, Mary?” to which she would reply: “I am not happy before he is hung!” When the family of an old man who just died in prison came to her to make her feel guilty for putting him in prison in the first place, she would say: “I’m sure the girls of the community will be much safer now”.

I can’t bring myself to write in this blog all that we learned about the crimes committed against the victims Mary helps, but I personally have never heard such cruelty as in the stories she told us. During our visit, quite suddenly the door opened and in came a 14-year-old girl with a baby on her arm. The girl’s parents were very good friends with a Kenyan professor; when her parents died the professor began raping her, got her pregnant, infected her with AIDS and made her too ashamed to even go to school. Mary introduced us to her and explained to us everything that happened to her while she was standing right in front of us. She told us that the girl has decided to come out with her story, is now employed by the centre and her case is being handled. She wasn’t the only child Mary wanted us to hear about and meet…but at 14 she was the oldest, if you can imagine. If I had a lot of extra money I would sponsor this girl and the centre. Mary wants a full-time lawyer, a rescue centre and money to build more awareness.

On another note, many Kenyan NGOs have tried to hike up the local salaries of their staff to benefit from large donations. Mary, on the other hand, hired four people for the one-person’s salary we provided her. Most of her staff are people living with HIV/ADIS. We bought some fresh honey from the centre, made by the beneficiaries of the programme I described earlier, and were about to leave when Mary came up to me, pointed to small pickup truck and said: “After you leave we will take the guy inside that car to the police station. He raped a girl last night…do you want to see him?” Trust me, I had no desire!

The rest of the trip went well. We saw a distribution site, one of our largest warehouses, and interviewed more implementing partners… but none of Mary’s calibre: she is one in a million! It’s amazing what one woman can do!

Since my trip last week, I have set up a meeting with some key people at the Danish Embassy for next week. This is my first attempt to use my citizenship to attract resources for WFP programs. I was lucky to get some help from a close friend of mine, but I am sure it will be a long process. I will keep you posted.


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